The Tree

 

Grandfather's dead now, and Father takes me hunting with him in the forest. I'm too old to be frightened of the hill-spirits: but since Grandfather died, I'm frightened of the sky.

Some evenings, he used to take his rocking chair outside the house, and smoke his pipe there while mother was cooking supper over a fire and Father was out hunting. The forest always seemed frightening and cosy at the same time in the evening when it was getting dark. Mother said there were bad things - spirits who lived under the hills, who came out when it got dark and looked for little boys to eat. Grandfather was too old to hunt in the forest and I was too young, so I used to be terrified that Father would stay out a minute too late, and be caught by one of the spirits and leave us all alone

I thought Grandfather was asleep, but he wasn't, he had jerked his head back to look at the sky. It was one of those lovely nights when the sky looks like a big black upside down mixing bowl and all you want to do is lie on your back and look at it and count the stars.

'Why aren't you helping your mother?' he snapped. He was the sort of grown-up who liked to pretend to be very severe. I found it was the nice ones you had to be careful of.

'She said to go and talk to you.' I said, honestly. I didn't mention that she had added 'if you can't find anything more useful to do.'

Grandfather smiled one of those well-I-suppose-the-young-people-know-best smiles, and looked back at the sky.

'Look at that,' he said.

I thought perhaps he had spotted a shooting star. You often saw them on nights like this if you waited long enough. But I couldn't see it. Besides, I was too old to believe that you could make a wish.

'That one, there - look - follow the three dim ones in the straight line, sweep the line across the sky, do you see it?'

I followed the pretend line he had drawn with his eyes, and found a brightish star there. As I stared at it, I thought it looked green. But if you look at the stars for long enough, you see all sorts of colours in them. Sometimes, I thought they really were multi-coloured; not diamonds at all but jewel like the ones in the dress-shop window. Sometimes, I thought that it was just my eyes making funny coloured lights, like when you look at the sun for two long or screw your eyes up and try to go to sleep.

'Where is that damned son of mine?'

'I expect he'll be back soon.'

'I hope so.'

Unless the hill spirits have got him, I thought.

'You don't remember your Granny, do you?'

'I remember when the Priest came to take her away. He said we should be pleased she had gone to be with God. They put her in a big wooden box. I think I remember looking at her in her bed before they came. Mother says she used to play with me when I was small, but I can't remember.'

'Your misfortune. She was beautiful, I don't mind telling you. When I was just a little older than you, I used to walk five miles down that path into town to visit her. Day after day her father would say - 'but can you keep my daughter in the manner to which she is accustomed, that's what I want to know' - and she was accustomed to the town, and a house with two floors, and money has never been what we have most of.'

He didn't often talk about Granny, and never in front of Father. I didn't know what I was supposed to say, and it frightened me to think of her being dead, because it reminded me that either Daddy or Mummy was going to die one day, and that reminded me that Daddy was still out in there forest.

'I made this house myself, you know.'

I knew. Every time there was a strong wind, every time a nail came loose in a wall, we would be reminded. 'Made this house myself, I did, with my own hands.'

'Cut the tree down with my own hands, I did. I was thinking, we may not have money; but with a house, and a fire, a maybe a few chickens, whose to say that we won't be happy?

'There's a craft to cutting wood; to knowing what tree to pull for timber. Not like the people who mow the edges of the woods, pulling down every thing they find with leaves on it. Keep going like that and there won't be anything left. And when the last tree is pulled down, what will happen to the spirits, that's what I want to know? No good will come of any of this, but it won't be in my time.

'So I found a tree, solid and dependable, and took my axe to it, and I'm telling you that I hurled myself at that tree all day, until at last the thing fell. I was going to give myself a long rest, to clip off my hip flask and take a swig of ale that I'd earned. But I didn't. It wasn't the tree I was looking at, it was the stump.

'There, sitting on the stump of the tree was a gemstone. Green it was. Is that an emerald? It was bigger than the jewel in my mothers wedding ring; a jewel fit to sit in a kings crown, I thought. It wasn't a rough diamond like they pull out of the mountains, either, but it was cut, the way a jeweller would have made it.

'And all I can think is that somehow, this jewel, this precious jewel which would buy a whole town, never mind build a house, is sitting in this tree. How it got there, God knows, not I: I was thinking at the time maybe a robber hid it in a hollow in the tree, although I knew that was crazy because there wasn't an inch of rot in it.

'I've thought about it everyday for fifty years, and I can't imagine that there is any way it could have got there unless it was there all the time. Maybe the tree grew up around it.

'I'm thinking, I'll take the thing, and have done with it, take it into town this very day and swap it for some money and get married there and then.

If I'd moved a second earlier, we would have lived in a house made of bricks with water and servants and you'd have gone to school.

'I heard a sound, and when I first heard it I thought it was a Gipsy playing a flute.

'But it was just a bird, twittering away in the branches of a tree. As I stopped, only for a second, to listen to its chirping, it swooped. I only saw it for a second, but I swear it wasn't like any bird I ever saw, before or since. No bigger than a pigeon, but with feathers like an eagle.

'It swooped; it swooped at the treestump; it caught the gem in its horrible little beak and flew up, up, up into the sky with it. I would have sold my soul to the that day if I could have had a bow and arrow or a gun and known how to use it, but no good. It was gone. Bird, jewel, house, servants.

'I never saw the bird, or the jewel again; but I took the tree back with me, and used it for the foundations of this house. And when I'd built the thing up, and painted it, the girl and I eloped, money or no money. Her father didn't speak to us for five years, but he eventually came round. Her brother came to the funeral, but he never gave his sister a farthing, not even when she was ill. They're both dead now, of course.'

'Don't you listen too much to Father's stories. He used to tell me that if I worked hard and lived honest, I'd make my fortune.'

I don't know when Father had come back, how much of the story he had heard. The hill-spirits hadn't got him. They never did get him. If they were to get him now, I've learned enough about hunting that we wouldn't starve. But I don't believe in tree spirits. I don't believe in magic birds either.

During supper, I whispered to Grandfather. 'Was it true, what you told me about the tree?'

'Quite true.'

'A magic tree, then?'

'It might have been.'

"I don't believe in magic."

"So much the better."

"You never saw the bird again?"

"Never, since that day. Nor the jewel either. Until tonight."

On some winter nights, my grandfather used to sit in his rocking chair in front of the house he had built with his own hands, looking up at the sky.

He's dead now too, of course, and although I often look out of the winter, or cast my eyes upwards on starry nights, I've never been able to find the green star he told me about. But once, when I went to visit him and Granny in the churchyard, I think I saw a bird, as big as a pigeon, with feathers like an eagle.

 

 

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